Peaceful reunions: Being strong spiritually and physically

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4−36:43)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, begins with Jacob’s return to the land of Israel after twenty-two years away. It more specifically deals with the encounter Jacob and his family will have with his brother Esav. 22 years earlier Jacob ran away from his brother who wanted to kill him for “Steeling” his blessings. As Jacob approaches the land and is about to be reunited with his brother he is prepares for a possible violent encounter..

The matter becomes more complicated when Jacob sends a messenger to find out the intentions of Esav his brother. When they return, they report the following: “We came to your brother Esav and he too is approaching towards you with four hundred men” (Genesis 32:7). This of course is troublesome to Jacob. After all he is not sure after twenty-two years what Esav’s intentions really are. Is he still angry regarding the many times I tricked him? Does he still want my head? To be sure hearing that Esav was approaching with four hundred men was not reassuring. With good reason the very next verse states, “And Jacob was exceedingly afraid and it troubled him” (Genesis 32:8).

In the end the two brothers meet and Jacob’s fears seem unfounded. Esav comes in peace the two brothers hug and go their separate ways. There is one verse in the opening of the parsha that I would like to explore and “read between the lines.” When Jacob sends the messengers, he tells them the following, “Thus you shall say to my brother Esav. Thus says your servant Jacob, with Lavan I have lived and stayed until now” (Bereshit 32:5).

The commentaries ask a number of questions regarding this verse. Of what significance is it to Esav that he knows that Jacob lived with Lavan? Why does Jacob feel it important to relate that piece of information to Esav? We would assume that Esav knew very well that Jacob lived with Lavan after running away from home.

I suggest that in these words there is a subtle attempt by Jacob at psychological warfare. The Jacob that Esav remembers is an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim” – “simple man who dwells in tents”. The Jacob that Esav knew is an easy pushover. By telling Esav “with Lavan I have lived and survived” Jacob is planting in the head of Esav a new picture. Lavan was known as a con man. To live in his world and survive one needed to be strong and street smart. Jacob is subtly telling Esav I am no longer the pushover you knew. He is telling Esav that he has survived the world of Lavan and even outsmarted him. The message to Esav is that if he is coming with aggressive intentions he will meet a Jacob who capable of putting up a fight.

Rashi, the great commentator, writes on this that he agrees that with these words Jacob indeed conveys a message. But the message is a different one. The numerical value of the word “Lived (GARTI)” in Hebrew, is 613. In his commentary Rashi explains the verse as follows, “With Lavan the wicked one I have lived and nevertheless I managed to keep the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil ways” (Rashi on Genesis 32:5).

Once again we could ask of what importance is it to Esav find out that Jacob kept the commandments? What was Jacob trying to relay to his brother? Perhaps what Rashi is suggesting is that Jacob was once again subtly telling Esav that he would not be an easy pushover. To be able to remain committed to his father’s “Jewish” way of life in spite of the fact he lived with the wicked Lavan required great inner strength. Perhaps he was saying that by living with Lavan he was not only had to be wise, but he developed a great inner strength to maintain his beliefs and had to fight to the end to preserve them. Perhaps in the end this is why Esav’s four hundred men come in peace. It could be that they indeed came with warring intentions but when they saw a Jacob committed to his religiosity, with an unshakable commitment to fight to protect his beliefs and his family, that those warring intentions changed to appeasement. 

This verse is a message that is of great historical significance to the Jewish people. In these few words Jacob breaks the stereotype of the Diaspora Jew. For two thousand years until our return to the land of Israel in 1948, the stereotypical description of the Jew was one who did not know how to fight back. He excelled in matters of the mind and finances, but when it came to standing up for his rights he was a pushover. There were many who because of this felt that the best way to avert the wrath of the nations was to shed the yoke of religious life. They embraced secularism claiming it would save them from the anti-Semites. How wrong they were.

Jacob paints another picture for us, as the man who upholds his religious tradition and as one who stands up to fight those who threaten him and his family. Jacob in this light is the role model of a Jew. When he returns to the land it is with his religious identity intact and with a fighting spirit to protect his family from those who seek their destruction.

I cannot help but compare Jacob as he returns to the land of Israel with the modern State of Israel. The return of the Jewish nation to the land and the establishment of an IDF told the world that we would no longer be pushovers. We would be like Jacob when he returns to his brother ready to fight if need be. But Jacob teaches us another lesson. He is also the one who lived in exile yet kept his religious identity. When he returns to the land it is with his religion intact. I believe that he paints for us the picture of the ideal Jew. He is both the soldier and the committed Jew all in one. He teaches us that one does not have to be at the expense of the other.

Today more than ever before we need both of these qualities of Jacob. We, the Jewish nation, wherever we are must adhere to tradition. Assimilation is rampant and the only thing that will save us is a return to tradition. As Jacob upheld his religious beliefs in spite of living in exile with Lavan, so must we. We must all be able to say, “With Lavan I have lived yet I have kept the commandments.” In addition the nation of Israel must be physically strong today ready to fight for its survival. In every generation there are those who seek our destruction. They want our land and instill fear in us with terrorism. But like Jacob we must be ready to fight them and not back down. In the end I believe what will save us is to follow in Jacob’s footsteps of adhering to the Torah and never backing down from the battle. 

Rabbi Doug Zelden is Rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, chaplain for Home Bound Hospice, and host of the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (

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